Mark Brunner, formerly of Augusta, Ga., lives in the woods, but intends to make a big change in the coming year.
“I ain’t gonna live like this forever,” he said.
Brunner made full use of the resources offered at Project Homeless Connect during a comprehensive event called Bull City Fresh Start, held at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park Thursday, Jan. 26. The event took place from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and exposed people experiencing homelessness to services offered in the community.
Matt Schnars, City of Durham Department of Community Development project manager, said around 40 homeless people and 20 different non-profit organizations attended the event.
“Project Homeless Connect engages the most vulnerable people and makes them aware of the different services out there, while also allowing everyone else, like the non-profits and volunteers, have a better understanding of the nature of need for the homeless population,” Schnars said.
Durham County Veteran Services, Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, Durham County Social Services and Housing for New Hope were just a few of the organizations at the event.
The event connected these non-profit organizations with a variety of individuals struggling with homelessness.
Florida natives Herbert Nelson and wife Charmaine have been together for eight years. The couple benefited from many of the services provided at the event, including an evaluation of their credit scores.
Herbert said he visited the veteran’s table and asked about his lost DD-214, or separation documents.
“I should be receiving funds from my separation of military. Something I couldn’t do before because I don’t have a valid home address. I haven’t seen [DD-214] that in years,” Herbert said. “Maybe I’ll buy a house with the money I’ll receive. Coming here today makes me feel like everything is happening right on time.”
Cynthia Harris, a volunteer for Housing for New Hope, said the event is a one-stop shop.
“I feel like Housing for New Hope has made a difference in so many people’s lives,” Harris said. “We have saved people who would have died in the woods, we have reunited families and we helped so many people return to school, some have even earned a four-year degree from the local universities.”
Bull City Fresh Start
Project Homeless Connect has occurred annually since 2007, but this was the first time the event was held in conjunction with the Point-In-Time Count under the umbrella title of Bull City Fresh Start.
According to the Bull City Fresh Start event invitation, the Point-In-Time Count is a national event that takes place on the last Wednesday of January every year. Several teams of community volunteers canvas all five Durham City districts to locate and count the men, women and children who are without homes and are living on the streets, under highway bridges and in encampments.
The count is used to secure appropriate funding from the Federal Government for Durham’s Continuum of Care and allows the city to organize programs and services that will address the needs of our homeless community, Schnars said.
Schnars said Project Homeless Connect and the Point-In-Time Count were combined into a two-day event to target the unsheltered homeless population.
“When we held the event in October, we did all of our advertising through mass media, but we realized the unsheltered homeless population doesn’t have access to newspapers or the internet,” he said. “By combining the count with Project Homeless Connect, we could tell the unsheltered homeless people that we saw about the event the next day.”
Back on Their Feet
Olympia Smith, an North Carolina Central University graduate, said she learned about Project Homeless Connect through a flyer at Starbucks. Smith is the founder of a non-profit designed to help people experiencing homelessness.
Her idea came to her when she discovered a viral Facebook post about survival packs. Smith decided to make a version of this survival pack for people in dire need of basic necessities and, through that, create a platform of information and awareness for people dealing with the struggles of homelessness.
“This [survival pack] not only gives them a little something to eat, but helps them get on their feet and offer opportunities,” Smith said. “Thus the name ‘Get On Your Feet’ came to me, and I quickly wrote it on a piece of paper.”
Smith said she understands what it’s like to struggle to pay bills. After graduating from North Carolina Central in 2004, she was barely getting by and afraid to ask for help. Smith said if it wasn’t for services similar to those offered at Project Homeless Connect, she’s not sure where she would be today.
Her biggest concern are those like her — people who don’t want to ask for help.
“The people out there need to know that they are part of our communities,” Smith said. “They need to know we may not know their struggles but to not be discouraged by whatever led them there.”
Smith said the pillars of her vision are her beliefs of inclusivity and support, though it’s really her exposure to the other side that makes her involvement unique and valuable.
“Even people that may seem like they don’t want to get off the street may need someone to let them know that they really matter,” Smith said. “They are relevant and there’s help here for them to get back on their feet.”
As a follow-up to Bull City Fresh Start, Project Director Schnars sent this email to the volunteers: “We will count a total of 60 persons for the official unsheltered point in time count. This is nearly double what was reported last year. We feel the process we used this year significantly improved the accuracy and reliability of the unsheltered point in time count. We hope to build on this next year. We have identified at least 4 of the persons who were identified during Bull City Fresh Start who moved to housing of their own or a shelter as a result of Bull City Fresh Start. Several other persons identified have been connected to services and supports to engage them to become housed.”
And he included the Bull City Fresh Start Survey.